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Chimpanzees Can Learn to Cook

Given a microwave-like tool, chimpanzees become chefs

(Kennan Ward/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Chimpanzees can use tools, wage war and even walk upright. Now, it’s time to add another ability to that list — NPR’s John Hamilton reports that, given the right tools, they can learn to cook, too.

When evolutionary biologists got curious about when early humans cooked up the first meal, writes Hamilton, they turned to chimpanzees, which are biologically quite similar to humans. Researchers created a “chimpanzee microwave” and placed it in a wildlife sanctuary. The device isn’t actually a microwave. In fact, it doesn’t cook food at all. Rather, chimps put uncooked food into a bowl with a false bottom, where it was swapped out with cooked food, much like a magic trick. When the chimpanzees realized they could cook food in the “oven,” Hamilton reports, half of them started using it regularly.

To determine whether chimpanzees understood the concept of raw and cooked food in the first place, scientists gave chimpanzees cooked and raw foods. Hamilton writes that chimps immediately put raw foods in the device and even held on to raw foods until they could get to the cooking tool.

Over the course of nine experiments, the scientists proved that chimpanzees not only have the cognitive skills to cook, but that they prefer cooked foods, understand that cooking transforms raw foods, and will give up convenience to do so.

So what’s there to learn from a few chimp chefs? Plenty. Some scientists theorize that the adoption of cooked food is what allowed humans to evolve in the first place, contributing to larger brain size and changes in social structures.

The authors of this study conclude that “several of the fundamental psychological abilities necessary to engage in cooking may have been shared with the last common ancestor of apes and humans.” Translation: long before humans could control fire, they had the innate preferences and abilities that made cooking desirable and doable. Next time you heat up some leftovers in the microwave, remember the cooking chimpanzees— you might be more like them than you think.

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